If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

How to read a document: analyzing a historical text

How do historians analyze sources from the past? KA's historian Kim Kutz Elliott and grammarian David Rheinstrom continue their conversation about how to interpret Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address.

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user abbigailjohnson
    how many people supported Franklin D. Roosevelt? Did they agree with what he said?
    (30 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Shylah Murphy
      Well he ended up becoming president and usually when someone becomes president more people vote for them than someone else (There are the rare occurrences where this isn't true) so I'd say a lot of people.
      He's one of our most loved, most favorite, most known, (Up there with Lincoln and Washington) and I know a lot of people looked up to him.
      (13 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user c72980
    at you speak about how all sources are biased but are some so biased that it makes others appear to be unbiased?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      I suppose that could be the case! I think there's certainly a spectrum of bias -- some sources are deliberately trying to skew the facts and some are trying to be as objective as possible (while still being influenced by their authors and broader culture).

      One thing that's definitely important to remember is that even sources that we think must be 100% objective (like, say, the Census) are still biased in that they are influenced by culture and the individuals who define what questions to ask and how to interpret the information they provide.
      (16 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user khanacademylover76
    Is a democrat a politician? I've never really been quite sure.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user B.K.
      The two main political parties in the United States at the moment being are Democrat and Republican. Democrats tend to like a larger federal government and social benefits, while Republicans tend to be the opposite, preferring less government restrictions. For example, maybe someone is a Conservative-Republican, and tend to side with Republicans on political issues. But does that make them a politician? No, a politician is a person who actually involves himself/herself in the government, trying for a political position.

      A simple example is Donald Trump. Donald Trump wasn't really a politician before he ran for president. Once he tried for president, he became a politician of sorts. :)
      (12 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user paul.martineau
    how does seeing a shoping list help history?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      We get to make some generalizations about that era, when combined with other documents, gives us a more complete view of history. We might be able to tell the price of goods, maybe even inflation and wages, the level of consumerism, what goods or food or commodities people bought at the time, maybe how those goods affected peoples' daily lives, if the goods were produced or imported, telling who wrote the list via handwriting, etc. It's true that you probably can't make a lot of discoveries just with a shopping list, but it can help.
      (5 votes)
  • leafers tree style avatar for user brittany4play
    I really don`t understand how to analyze a document. Can I get some help here
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user msalamat
    What other skills would be useful for analyzing a historical text?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user elimat1
    Shows the Bible is true
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Odessa L.
    Not sure if this is related, but how exactly would one do an OPVL (Origin, Purpose, Value, Limitation) on a source? To be more precise, how should I go about it? Would a chart be a good option?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user theredconchobar
    How do historians analyze sources from the past? They didn't answer this question throughout the video. I was trying to put together what they were saying to find the answer, but it didn't make sense. So my question is; how do historians analyze sources from the past?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user sara johnson
    is this to help me in the long run to help identify what historians are saying in there speeches from different times as it isn't always easy to identify?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] In our last video, we started looking at this speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt which he gave at his innaguration in March of 1933. We took some time to just identify what was happening in this speech and also the context of this speech, coming at the height of the Great Depression. - [Voiceover] Now we're gonna dive deeper into our textual analysis and explore the soucre, figure out what is going on with Roosevelt's language and what he's trying to say and what his biases are. - [Voiceover] Let's get a little more into what else goes on in this speech, not just the very famous opening paragraph. We start here with saying people are facing the grim problem of existence, and a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment, and then what comes next? - [Voiceover] Let's hear all this in context. Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts, compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we still have much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence. Having admitted their failure and abdicated, practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of man. Restoration calls however, not for changes in ethics alone. This nation asks for action and action now. What's interesting about this paragraph is that there's a lot of Bible stuff going on in here. There's a lot of biblical references that serve to do I think a lot of work for Roosevelt in this inaugural address. - [Voiceover] As you talked, I just underlined the things that really stood out to me as maybe kind of the heart of what he was saying, and you're saying these are like Biblical references. What do you mean by that? - [Voiceover] Some of them are. When we're talking about plague of locusts and money changers specifically, we're looking at old and new testament references respectively, in fact, later in this speech, he refers to money changers being chased out of our nation's temple which is a deliberate reference to the New Testament. - [Voiceover] This is very grand. We love to hear this speech so much, because it has that kind of ringing of authenticity in a way that maybe a modern speech does not. - [Voiceover] Some of that authenticity comes through association with ethic literature and the Bible. He's making these illusions to great Biblical events. Like the plague of locusts being visited upon Egypt which was like a great and terrible plague, and he's using that as a counter point to the misery of the present moment. He's saying, look, things could be worse. We could be ancient Egypt in the Bible, and locusts could be eating all of our crops. Things are bad, but it's not like God himself is willing destruction upon us. - [Voiceover] Yeah, I think this is also another one of the really interesting things about the great depression. It's true that there were farm failures during the dust bowl, but on the whole it's not like people stopped producing food. This wasn't a famine. What it was was a crisis of confidence where prices went down significantly, and so farmers could not make a living on their crops. It's not that they didn't have food. It's that they didn't have money, and I also feel like there's a different aspect to the reason that he uses this biblical language here, and I think that's because it's very authoritative. When you stand up in front of a group of people and Roosevelt has this powerful voice which really resonates with people, and you speak like a preacher would speak. It says, this is a man of authority. This is a man who perhaps is in touch with the moral authority associated with the Christian Bible. - [Voiceover] Sure, for a very long time, authority was kind of correlated with your ability to quote chapter and verse. I mean we're talking about a man who is just put his hand on a Bible in order to swear himself in. - [Voiceover] It really makes him seem not only like he knows what he's talking about, but also that he's got a handle on the situation. - [Voiceover] What we're saying that by harnessing the language, he's trying to harness the authority that people have invested in the church by using the language of the church. - [Voiceover] What we're doing here, I might call step three which is to identify how an argument is made. We're looking at his rhetorical strategies and seeing how they're effective or in perhaps another case, not effective in conveying his opinion, and I say opinion. At this point, what would we say that his opinion of the Great Depression is? - [Voiceover] That it's specific people's fault, that it is at the fault of not just this wave of panic, but on a count of some greedy people, the unscrupulous money changers and the rulers of the exchanges. He's blaming bankers for the great depression, which I think is fair. There's very little regulation in the 1920s that would prevent the kind of fraud that could lead to a collapse of banking. For example, insider trading is not illegal, and most people bought stocks on margin which is a terrible idea which means you only have to put 10% of the value of a bond down before you buy it, which means that there's a lot of theoretical money floating around out there that's not backed by much real money. - [Voiceover] That sounds like a terrible idea. - [Voiceover] It was a terrible idea. - [Voiceover] It's like buying stocks on credit. - [Voiceover] Exactly. - [Voiceover] Oh, man. - [Voiceover] His argument is that first, things could be worse. Second of all, the reason things are bad is because of these people. Thing number three, here's how we're going to get back on track. - [Voiceover] This is where we get here at the end. The nation asks for action, and action now, which it says not only a mention of how he's going to get things done but a covert poke at Herbert Hoover for not doing much, and then he says, our greatest primary task is to put people to work. Remember there's an unemployment rate of 25%. - [Voiceover] That is so many people. - [Voiceover] Our current unemployment rate is less than 5% to give you an idea. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. it can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources. - [Voiceover] This is a radical idea. - [Voiceover] It is a really radical idea, and this is one reason why historians love to study the great depression and the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, because this is kind of the decade where we threw out the rulebook, and I think what Roosevelt is saying here is he was willing to try anything to conquer the great depression, and one of the things he tries is bringing the government into the process of giving people work. We've got a sense of what he's arguing and how he's arguing it. Let's take a higher level look now. Let's say step four is seeing if you can analyze the potential bias of a source, and I wanna be clear that all sources are biased. I think a common misconception is that if you're looking at a source, it's either biased or it's not. It's written by someone who has an agenda or someone whose completely impartial, and that is never the case. - [Voiceover] What about a photograph? If I take a photograph of something or someone, isn't that then objective rendering of that person or object? - [Voiceover] It certainly shows what was there at that moment in time, but even photographers are making choices. When you pick up a camera and you take a picture of a thing, you are taking a picture of that thing and not something else, which in itself a form of bias to say I think this is important or this is what I want you to see. - [Voiceover] Where we put the frame is a choice. The question is what is Roosevelt not saying in this speech? What is he not taking a photograph of? What's just outside the view of his camera? - [Voiceover] And why is he taking this photograph of a speech? When he sat down to write this, what was motivating him? And what are some of the perhaps even less obvious factors about why he makes the argument that he does. - [Voiceover] Obviously, the man has a bias in favor of his own politics. These are his administrations, ideas. He's going to be coming out in favor of those very strongly. - [Voiceover] FDR is a democrat. There really haven't been many democrats in office since before the Lincoln administration since the 1860s. That's a new thing. This is the popular base rejecting Hoover and the Republican party because of the Great Depression. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] He's bringing democratic political ideas to the table here. - [Voiceover] He's trying to make a case for those political ideas in this speech. He was elected by the majority of American voters, but now he has to make the case to the rest of the United States. He has to make a case to the people that didn't elect him. - [Voiceover] He's saying that direct recruiting by the government itself, government jobs, having the powers as if the depression were war, that is a case for really strong government intervention which is a key stone of the democratic party compared to Republicans who generally advocate for a smaller government. He's saying this is what's gonna work. The democratic platform of using the government in the economy and in social programs is what's going to work to get us out of this depression. - [Voiceover] He's making a big strong case for federalism. - [Voiceover] Exactly, what I think is interesting though here is that there's a lot he doesn't say, and I think that's also important to look at when you're analyzing a primary source. There's a lot that you could talk about, but you make choices about what to talk about and what not to mention. What could you say he doesn't mention here? - [Voiceover] He doesn't mention how any of this is going to work. - [Voiceover] Yeah, I think that's maybe the biggest missing piece here. This is broad strokes. This is getting people on board, but no where does he say, okay here's exactly what I'm going to do. Let me tell you how many dollars I'm going to spend, how many people I'm going to hire, what sort of cabinets I'm going to create. This is not a time for specifics he says. This is almost more of an inspirational speech to say okay, I gotcha. We've looked at the source. We've analyzed it's rhetorical strategies, and it's potential bias. The last thing we might wanna do with this is now think about how we could use it as a source. - [Voiceover] We're taking this primary source, and we're turning it into a secondary source. - [Voiceover] Right, so say that you are sitting down to write an essay about the Great Depression, and you've gotta say, now can I use Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inaugural address to make my point in my essay? Step five let's say synthesize perhaps. Using my big words, as a tool for your own argument. - [Voiceover] I would say that this speech is the frame that Roosevelt is putting on the depression. This is how he is creating the narrative that he wants Americans to adopt or he is identifying the crisis and this is how he wants people to see it. - [Voiceover] Yeah, so this might be a great primary source to tell you about Roosevelt's strategy or his communication strategy. What might it not be a very good primary source to help you make an agrument for? - [Voiceover] It probably wouldn't be a very good primary source for the Republican legislative response. You might wanna go with Senator Reid Smoot of Utah for something like that. - [Voiceover] Right, and it's probably not a great source for really diving into the specifics of the new deal. He doesn't say anything about the civilian conservation corp. He doesn't say anything about the national recovery administration. This is not the nuts and bolts of the new deal. It's the grand idea behind it. - [Voiceover] Right, he's trying to sell the new deal. - [Voiceover] It's I think, a really powerful primary source for understanding the impetus behind the new deal, but not the programs. - [Voiceover] Sweet. - [Voiceover] Alright, well thank you for bringing your sweet grammarian skills to the table as we look at Roosevelt's speech. - [Voiceover] My pleasure, thank you for bringing your sweet historian skills to the table. - [Voiceover] Kim and David out. - [Voiceover] Scholarly high five!